Augustin Lesage

Augustin Lesage was born in Saint-Pierre-lez-Auchel in north­ern France, and spent his early life as a laborer in the coal mines. Then one evening in 1911, when he was thirty-five years old, he heard a voice under­ground that told him “Un jour, tu seras pein­tre” (One day, you will be a painter).
A year later, partly through his involve­ment in Spir­i­tu­al­ist cir­cles, Lesage began com­mu­ni­cat­ing via auto­matic writ­ing with “spir­its,” includ­ing one he believed to be his sis­ter Mary who had died in child­hood. The spir­its told him:
The voices you heard were real. You will be a painter. Fear not, and heed our advice. You will find it ridicu­lous in the begin­ning, but we are the ones trac­ing through your hand. Do not try to understand.

The voices pro­ceeded to tell him which col­ors and brushes to buy, and where to order a can­vas. Lesage ordered a small can­vas, but when it arrived, it mea­sured three meters square. He wanted to cut it into smaller pieces, but the voices stopped him.
For the next two years, he came home from the mines every night and went to work, let­ting the spir­its guide his hand. He began in the upper right cor­ner and grad­u­ally filled the entire can­vas (which is now in Jean Dubuffet’s Col­lec­tion de l’Art Brut in Lau­sanne). The com­po­si­tion was built by fill­ing in small areas at a time. The spir­its did not let him eval­u­ate the work in its entirety: part of the can­vas remained rolled as they guided his hand. ”It was like work­ing with­out work­ing,” the artist recalled.

In July of 1913, Lesage inter­rupted his work in the mines to do some faith heal­ing; a move that got him in hot water with French author­i­ties who charged him with ille­gally prac­tic­ing med­i­cine. The tes­ti­mony of his dozens of suc­cess­ful clients helped acquit him in 1914 and later that year he was deployed for WWI, where he con­tin­ued to make draw­ings on postcards.
In the years fol­low­ing the war, Augustin Lesage was vis­ited by Jean Meyer, direc­tor of the Spir­i­tu­al­ist jour­nal La Revue Spirite. Meyer became his patron, and in 1923 Lesage was able to quit work­ing in the mines and devote him­self to painting.

Like the paint­ings them­selves, Lesage’s posi­tion within art his­tory is pecu­liar. Though held in high esteem by the Sur­re­al­ists, Lesage’s legacy is strong but obscure: of the 800 can­vases he left behind, most have sel­dom been exhib­ited abroad. English-speaking audi­ences are hard pressed to find any infor­ma­tion on the artist.
Lesage’s pat­terns are unmis­tak­able. After not­ing the sym­me­try of the first large can­vas, he began orga­niz­ing his com­po­si­tions along a cen­tral axis, build­ing com­plex geo­met­ric struc­tures in hor­i­zon­tal lay­ers from the cen­ter outward.


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